11 to 20th March 2008
Dr Richard Charles and Malcolm Wilson
March has proved by far to be the better month for a good abundance of migrant birds of prey and in particular Black-chested Snake-eagles in
After a successful pick up at the airport we were soon heading north to the
On route we saw a few Steppe Buzzards and Amur Falcons but best was a Booted Eagle 50ks north of
We took the scenic route through the
Just outside the town of
We found a Pale-chanting Goshawk and dropped for it but not a glimmer of interest and next flushed a BSE off a pole with too much faffing about, bit rusty was one excuse, getting warmed up another!
We soon found ourselves on one of the most productive back roads I know, 'Beauty Boulevard' a stretch of dirt road running parallel to a train of tower pylons from the village of Beauty to Beska for 30kms where in the past I have had great success. If there are any snake-eagles in the area they will more than likely be perched on one of these pylons.
First off a BCSE presented itself and a trap dropped, but again no interest, started to blame the sluggish mouse in the trap but this reaction does happen sometimes.
A couple of km's later we found another and dropped again, this time the bird was off the pylon before I could turn the vehicle round! We had a few minutes wait before we got the bird. It was in transition from first to second plumage, so just over a year old and weighed 1250g. Unfortunately the mouse had not been so lucky and had got nailed by a party of Raider ants.
Ten minutes later we came across a two adult BCSE and an adult African Hawk-eagle, the latter closer to the road on a pole where it was devouring a Guinea fowl. This called for a couple of traps and we backed off to wait. The BCSE showed no interest, but just then all eyes went skyward to announce the presence of a marauding Wahlberg's Eagle.
The bird came in over the traps and suspiciously circled them getting lower and lower and finally hitting one trap a couple of times but not actually settling on it.
It may have built up the confidence but the African Hawk-eagle was having none of it and chased off after the Wahlberg's with the typical aggression of this species.
Couldn't believe it, here we were with 4 eagles of 3 species and nothing to show for it!
As it was getting late we had to press on and 2 pylons later found another BCSE which once dropped for came in like a rocket and again before I could turn round, a hungry bird! It got caught quite quickly and we had our first adult. Stunningly fresh plumage and on the large side at 1300g which took a 16mm ring unlike the usual 14mm.
We arrived at our lodge in the riparian forest of the
Sitting round the fire with some cold beers and poking the steaks every now and then, a Verreaux's Eagle Owl started up its deep resonating call nearby and we reflected on what a fine way it had been to celebrate my birthday!
Opened the nets at 0500hrs and got an interesting bunch first round, a Woodland Kingfisher, Meves's Starling 3 Red-billed Wood-Hoopoe, Emerald-spotted Wood-dove, Ring-necked Dove a Fork-tailed Drongo and a Shikra!
During the next few rounds we picked up a pair of Long-billed Crombec, a Laughing Dove, White-browed Scrub Robin, Red-headed Weaver, Lesser Honeyguide, Chin-spot Batis and Blue Waxbill.
Ringing here is done in an idyllic setting from the deck of the main lodge overlooking a backwater of the river. A Goliath Heron was perched up on a dead tree opposite keeping a beady eye on us.
A Wahlberg's Eagle and two BCSE were soaring overhead which bode well as we set off on a raptor run mid morning. As we got to the farmland some few kms on, we suddenly saw that the whole field was covered with hunting Amur Falcons and Lesser Kestrels, which I think had come in during the morning as they were not there last night and would have still been hunting before roost.
We found a Lanner Falcon on a pole next to the field and dropped for it, noticing it had a huge crop, so hopefully still feeling hungry before the food reached the stomach. It came in for the mouse a couple of times but not too keen, tried a Zebra finch but still no good. We decided to push on and then noticed a half eaten Guineafowl in the track!
We tried a BSE on the main road but not interested and a Pale-chanting Goshawk, also not having any of it.
At the top of the 'Boulevard' we dropped a trap for a Purple Roller and after a couple of attacks the bird settled onto the trap and proceeded to stab away at the mouse, getting nowhere other than caught! This usually happens when you have dropped a trap for something big and exciting such as a Martial Eagle and have to deal with the pesky roller which has just spoilt the chance of a lifetime! In this case it was a welcome diversion and it was duly ringed. There is some evidence to suggest this is a local or irregular afro-tropical migrant, moving in response to weather related food abundances or shortages, so well worth the effort.
First bird we came across was a BCSE and the ensuing post-drop adrenalin-filled wait, soon turned into a deflated and frustrated one! Onwards to the next two birds that were BSE’s and could have been stuffed for all the interest they showed!
Finally and a bit jaded, we had a go for a BCSE again, this time we were rewarded. The bird kindly waited for us to turn round and settle down with bins-on-bird to watch the extremely exciting moment when it spots the mouse and the next when it opens its wings to launch off and down to the trap. A straight-forward catch and an adult weighing 1405g and off we went. Next was another BSE, again another stuffed bird for all the reaction it showed. It began to rain at this point so we batted on to get supplies (more beer) in Lephalale.
On the way back we saw a pair of distant BCSE’s on a pylon and dropped for a Shikra that would have been a doddle had the dam zebra finch not been so smart and froze deathly still!
Given our recent success with the roller, we tried for 6 Lilac-breasted Rollers, some hitting the trap, others flying over, fun to watch at least.
Back on the Boulevard again we flushed a BCSE or it had just decided to go as we passed, shame. Then we found the GPS lying in the middle of the road from the last BCSE 3 hours before, it must have fell off the tail-gate in all the excitement!
It was still raining lightly and for the next 60 kms we dropped for no less than 8 BSE and 2 BCSE to no avail, the rain playing a big part in the need to feed and the need to keep feathers dry. Birds flying to the ground to feed may not be able to take off again.
We did see a very odd thing when waiting for a pair of BSE to do something with the mice, they began to display to each other, craning their necks bowing and weaving very snake-like in fact. Still didn't get one!
Crossing the fields to the lodge, we were amazed to find hundreds of Amur Falcons and Lesser Kestrels, hunting over the fields prior to roost. The birds had obviously moved into the area during the day as a Steppe Buzzard was among them indicating they had been moving together.
As we got back to the lodge we spotted a BSE on a dead tree at the end of the net lane! We tried to get a trap close enough but too confined and the bird took off.
After supper we went out on a dazzle following the river. We were just too late to spot a huge Verreaux's Eagle Owl which was sitting in a large Nyala tree just to the side of the track, I just managed to get a trap down and start to back off before the bird flew, just too closely confined on the small track. After a while we put up a Water Dikkop that managed to stay put whilst I got the landing-net over the bird. Such curious creatures with huge frog-eyes and big head to keep them in!
Not long after we put up another bird this time a Spotted Dikkop, but was too wary and flew off.
13th March, along the
The rain started at 0430hrs in a steady downpour and so all we could do was take down at dawn to get on the road by 0800.
We tried for a few soggy Lesser Kestrels on the way out but it was too cold and damp for any insect activity or excitement.
Likewise with a BSE on the road, wet wings hanging out in a vain attempt to dry them.
Heading down the Boulevard we spotted a distant BCSE and then no other sake-eagles, a first! However we did find a rather large and splendid Tawny Eagle sitting low-down on a dead tree. We dropped and backed off and didn't have long to wait before a heart-in-mouth moment when the bird began to react to the mouse. After what seemed hours, the bird launched itself in the trap direction and as it got to the trap, casually passed over having a good look at the mouse before landing in a Marula tree across the track. We gave the bird, which appeared to have a full crop, another 30mins before giving up and moving on. Picking the trap up I noticed further on a road kill of a Jackal, which I presume the Tawny had fed on.
We tried a new short cut through some nice bush country, very sandy tracks and after a short while nearly put the car into a Sickle-bush thicket as there, sitting up on a pole in all its glory was a huge juvenile Martial Eagle! Here was the perfect prize, but not an easy drop. We put the trap up on a sandy bank as the angle and distance were quite acute.
After 30mins of waiting there was still no reaction so we decided to try another angle. This involved opening a farm gate (risky business round these parts) and driving a little way towards the bird where we got the trap down in clear view of the bird. After anther age and no reaction we began to get a little desperate when out of the grass, right under the Eagle’s nose, came a pack of 8 Banded Mongoose! Now here was the perfect meal on a plate, but not a single bob or the faintest sign of interest, just too damn cold and wet.
Next up was a juv BCSE and couldn't find a clear area without army ants to drop, so just dropped anyway and still no interest, the mouse was very relieved to be picked up again.
Then we came across a pair of Wahlberg's Eagles and a good response with two traps down and two birds on the ground. But just too wary, we had the male bird have a stab and get caught briefly but got off and flew away.
300 yards later a BCSE flew off a pole before we could get close enough and along the top road dropped for a BSE who came in and kept going! Boy, we were having an unlucky morning to say the least, but it was the 13th today!
Finally after passing a few Pale-chanting Goshawk (had to prioritise) and seeing some distant BSE, an African Hawk Eagle with food, a juv Lanner (not interested) and 12 White-backed Vultures with 4 Lappet-faced Vultures, I spotted a Walberg's Eagle lurking inside a Marula tree.
Got the trap out and in it came much more confident then the last two and after a minute we had it, albeit caught by one back toe only!
An adult of 1200g and a female with 3 moult centres in the primary tract.
Greatly encouraged with this we found a juv BCSE 20 minutes later and after lots of half-hearted passes over the trap and sitting on the fence for ages we caught the bird, again by one toe! It was a big bird at 1505g and halfway through its first primary moult, so a second year bird. What did not help the whole process were the mice not moving in the cold, therefore not getting the required response from the birds.
At 1400hrs we dropped for a BSE and the bird came in for the trap, a straightforward catch of a big juvenile of 2.1kg. At last our luck seemed to be turning, but now we had spent a lot of time on soggy unenthusiastic birds and were now way behind schedule and so at 1600hrs pulled into the lovely Atherstone Nature Reserve for the night, not before flushing a last BCSE from a pole.
We dumped the essentials in the fridge and set off on a game drive for the last hour of the day and promptly came up against the track-filling shape of a large elephant’s backside. We had been told there was a dodgy rouge male in this area and we unanimously decided that this was indeed the creature and that the other track looked far better.
We spotted a couple of Steppe Buzzards in the distance and a small group of Wildebeest near the track and were seen off by an extremely fruity bull who charged across the track right in front of the vehicle a few times.
Whilst we got the camp organised I set a 40’ and African Scops Owl call on the ipod and came back 10mis later to collect an extremely cheesed off little bird! It was an immature with an interesting contrast between the outer and inner primaries.
Off first thing in the rain and found a pair of Wahlberg’s Eagle in a dead Ironwood. We had the female come in and dance round the trap, wing flicking but just too wary. Not to be late again as we had a long drive we continued and decided we really were going to be late again, particularly when finding an enormous adult Martial Eagle sitting up right next to the track. Trap down and backed off to wait, adrenalin surging (who needs coffee). The bird did show a bit of interest and actually bobbed a couple of times, but eventually and agonisingly it flew off. We were really up against bad weather affecting our catch rate so not much we could do about it.
We tried for a Black Kite that flew over the trap a few times, but not an easy bird to catch like this. We passed plenty of Steppe Buzzards in this area, but these can waste so much time we again prioritised for the bigger raptors.
The tracks were in very bad condition and we were driving sideways a lot of the time as we ploughed through mud and wet sand in true
But eventually on the edge of
After about a minute the female bobbed and came straight in and got caught well and truly in less than a minute. An adult female and a big bird of 1800g with a wing of 465mm and 4 moult centres in the primary tract.
We battled on now in really bad conditions often loosing sight of the track but eventually reached the tarmac road and quickly put in some kms skirting round Zeerust and Mafikeng.
We seemed to have gotten to the edge of the bad weather now quite a bit further south into
The track we followed now passed through some lovely country, green and lush savannah and great poles. Lesser-grey and Red-backed Shrikes were everywhere and Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters all moving north.
We had a Lanner on the trap that was not hungry enough, just curious and a BCSE caught, I even got my hand on the back of the bird but it slipped a noose and was off.
The weather caught up with us again and we really tested the vehicle on the outrageous track that had become a river with sudden huge sink-holes looming out of the driving rain at the last minute.
Eventually the rain cleared and we found a BCSE on a pylon far out in the middle of a vlei (Pan) and we drove the 400m over seriously bad hummocks to drop the trap seriously testing the springs of the vehicle. The bird came in fast and was obviously hungry and we got the bird. It was an average individual but with an old break in the leg, possibly a survivor of a gin trap accident.
We ringed the bird, which was an adult weighing 1105g with a wing of 532mm and released it, where it flew up onto a pylon to continue drying its wings.
The next leg of the journey took us to the border of the
It was getting too late now and so we did the last 100kms as the sun was setting to reach the very inviting and pleasant Kalahari style bush lodge.
What a day and we didn’t wait too long for the fridge to sort the beer out!
15th Molopo Nature Reserve and the
We set off first thing with the brooding rain-clouds lurking on the eastern horizon and headed towards
We were now into Kalahari sand and the bush reflected this with herds of Gemsbok, Springbok and Red Hartebeest all over the place. We spotted a Secretary bird up in a tree and a Wahlberg’s Eagle, which is at the westernmost edge of its range.
Coming round a bend we flushed a juv BCSE but were lucky to find it again a little further on sitting low down on a Candle Thorn and just managed to squeeze a trap into a gap on the track.
The proceeding events were quite interesting as initially the bird saw movement and flew over to have a look, settling in a bush nearer to the trap and then showed no interest. Looking at the mouse through the bins, I could see it had frozen and so we had to wait for that to change. After some 10 minutes of the mouse sitting completely still it suddenly moved causing the most impressive response from the eagle. It dived onto the trap immediately and after a little while we had the bird. Just goes to show how important the movement is.
The bird was a ‘7’ meaning in its second year with just over half of its first primary moult completed.
It was in good condition for a juv at 1290g with a wing of 532mm.
A little further on we found a male Lanner on a dead tree and got two traps down for him, a mouse and a zebra finch, the mouse proving to be the better option. He came in soon enough and got caught quite quickly. Indeed a 7 male in centrifugal primary moult as in true falcon form with a few retained juvenile greater coverts.
The next hour or so was frustrating, dropping for no less than 4 BSE’s with just the one coming over the trap to have a look. We had another lanner on the trap but flew off frustrated. We flushed what I think, was a Red-necked Falcon off a dead tree, saw it just too late.
At one point on the drive we found ourselves driving along the dried out
It was a female given its size of 1660g, wing of 447mm, bit shorter than the last.
At noon we headed back going south via the little outpost of Terra Firma and on this track spotted an adult Martial Eagle going over at some height. We spun the car round and screamed off in the direction to intercept the point the bird would cross the road and out went the trap at 100km per hour! A bit hit-and-miss this method but I did once catch an adult Martial in this fashion. This time however the Martial seemed to have a pressing engagement in
Just after this we came across an adult BCSE sitting on a dead tree a perfect distance from the track and we got two traps down.
The bird almost launched immediately but composed itself to wait a whole 15 minutes before it was finally convinced of which trap to choose.
We got the bird after a short wait and what a smashing specimen! 1570g with a wing of 566mm and 4 moult centres in the wing, it was in pristine condition.
For the remainder of the drive we had a Lanner on the trap and dropped for a few Steppe Buzzards (ha!) and dam and blast flushed a huge Tawny off a pole next to the road, we were just too near when we saw it. It had been feeding on a dead Bat-eared Fox in the track and had a full crop.
The loop we had driven today was over 400km and species observation tally was good with;
30 Pale-chanting Goshawk
5 Black-shouldered Kite
4 Gabar Goshawk
4 Greater Kestrel
1 Walberg’s Eagle
1 Tawny Eagle
1 Martial Eagle
And an assortment of 20 vulture, mostly White-backed with a couple of lappet-faced.
We stopped to have a look at a roosting flock of kestrels all tucked away inside a Boscia tree and to my surprise discovered they were all Red-footed Falcons! These are not at all a common site in the east so we dug out the scope and had a good look at these beautiful birds.
16th Cullinan – Askham – Kalahari trails
At 0700 we set off on a glorious morning which had a cold ‘snap’ to it and not a cloud in sight. We followed a terrific road with great poles but not a single raptor to be found, probably as a result of the sudden cold front, bird were not moving from traditional roosts as yet and so no perch-hunting was happening. Eventually we did see a few vultures and an adult Martial Eagle far off, thermalling on the first whispers of warm rising air.
We found virtually nothing all the way to Askham, except a couple of Pale-chanting Goshawks of which one we dropped for 4 and caught one that I filmed coming into the trap some 15m from the vehicle. It was an adult male which put up a great aggressive display on the trap after the mouse.
We then spotted a real treat for this area in the form of a little Pygmy Falcon. It was sitting out on a dead branch in a huge acacia erioloba (Camelthorn) which was sagging under the considerable weight of the huge haystack-like Sociable Weavers nest.
The small trap came out and we got it down under the bird. We waited a while and noted the considerable lack of interest the bird had in the mouse. Quickly shoving a Zebra Finch in another small trap we got that down too and backed off to watch. Talk about fussy! The falcon came in immediately hitting the trap several times but just that, no chasing the quarry so little chance of being caught. It eventually gave up and flew off.
Ok so we learnt something here!
Later we came across a family all sitting in another big Camelthorn but no one interested. Just about every bush had a Lesser-grey Shrike on it, I have never seen so many.
For the last 200ks we had been seeing, at an increasingly alarming rate, thousands, no millions of emerging Armoured Ground-crickets on the road. These particularly nasty and flightless little brutes are prone to live cannibalism and slowly devour anything alive or which had been alive and utter hell if one is unfortunate enough to have one climb up a guy-string into a furled net. However, great food for lots of birds!
We arrived at the home of Professor Anne Rasa who runs the guesthouse on the Askham to
On her desk in the office was a small glass tank with Parabuthus granulata, arguably the most deadly Scorpion in
However we had some daylight left so set off for a game drive on the reserve. We saw a few Pygmy Falcon here and there and lots of Namaqua and Double-banded Sandgrouse at the waterhole.
Other observations included Kori Bustard and a pair of Lappet-faced and several White-backed Vultures.
Fawn-coloured Larks were singing everywhere, and Spike-heeled Larks zipped across the track on our approach.
On the way back we flushed a Pygmy Falcon from a pole into a big Camlethorn where it joined another two. We got a selection of bait into two small traps which consisted of mice, zebra finch, mealworms and a highly irritated Armoured Ground Cricket.
Nothing interesting happened at all except the AGC put the mouse whose trap it was sharing through the paces a bit! Then after about 20 minutes suddenly an immature female made a dive for the trap and then back to the tree. It did this 3 times before finally getting caught! And it was the mouse trap which did the trick.
The bird was one I have wanted to catch very much for many years and here was this lovely little raptor, hardly bigger than the Lesser-grey Shrikes it had been sharing lizards and crickets with.
It was an immature female with fine buff fringes to the covers and a lovely chestnut mantle, It had a wing of 123mm and weighed 60g, so the wing of a swallow and weight of a thrush!
Just around the corner we found what was probably the male of this family group and we had him on the trap but not keen enough and he flew to the big Camelthorn to join the others.
We set off at 0600 in the cool of the morning to try and get another Pygmy Falcon, but the breakfast had not warmed up yet so neither were the falcons.
The sky had continued to clear and we had about 30% cloud cover in the fantastic and intense blue sky of the Kalahari as we set off for the park.
Also staying at the guesthouse was Kobus who had come to work with Prof Rasa taking people out on night walks for scorpions. He had told us that on his way from
The drive to Nossob Camp follows the dried out
Here was a great example of timing and a ‘gathering’ of these nomadic birds that had come in from all over the region and possibly further to this part of the Kalahari to exploit the post rains abundance of their prey base. Some several weeks ago this area had received plentiful rain and the grass had matured with rich seed and greenery for a reaction in the food chain base to trigger off a rely of events to reach the top where all the predators had gathered to take advantage of this phenomenon.
On the way to the camp we spotted 50 species of birds, raptors included;
23 Black-chested Snake-eagles (2 juv)
6 Brown Snake-eagles
35 Pale-chanting Goshawk
2 Booted Eagles
2 Tawny Eagles
1 Verreaux’s Eagle-owl
5 Secretary Birds
Springbok were abundant and had also made good use of the rains and were all fattened up with calves. Shaft-tailed Whydah were all over the place, males in full breeding plumage.
We got to camp and spent the rest of the afternoon with well earned G&T’s in the hide overlooking the waterhole watching Wildebeest and Gemsbok coming to drink and a pair of Lanner picking off Red-billed Quelea and laughing doves.
Other raptors which showed up here were an adult Gabar Goshawk which came to bathe.
18th Nossob to Kalahari trails
We left at 0700 and after about 5kms found a family of Lions on the side of the road but so well hidden in the long grass we left them to the more hard-core lion watchers!
This is a well known phenomenon in parks when the grass is too tall it is very hard to see anything. One of the reason we had not seen any Cheetah which this park is well known for.
We were now seeing loads more Tawny Eagles, where had they been yesterday was a mystery, possibly high up on the thermals as if they had been perched up in the big trees along the water course we would of seen some of them.
The following list was what we counted heading back south.
Black-shouldered Kite 11
Pale-chanting Goshawk 41
Secretary Bird 2
Black-chested Snake-eagle 13 (Juv 2)
Brown Snake-eagle 5
Tawny Eagle 17
White-backed Vulture 5
Rock Kestrel 1
Lappet-faced Vulture 1
Steppe Buzzard 1
The presence of so many Black-shouldered Kites was interesting as this opportunistic and nomadic species would have also come into this area as a response to the prey abundance following the rains.
We came across a large Mole Snake and a Puff Adder on the track, obviously some of the rich pickings for all the raptors about.
Back at the guest house we went out after the Pygmy Falcons again and had 3 different birds on traps, but no success. One of the problems was a pair of Southern Yellow-billed Hornbill who took an interest in the trap and chased away the little falcons several times.
We found a pair of Pearl-spotted Owlets who showed great agitation and excitement to the trap but there was possibly a lurking Lanner nearby and so the little owlets would have to wait till dark and make do with their normal insectivorous fare.
We set off early this morning, not before trying to find some Pygmy Falcons but it was still too early for the little raptors so we headed south.
On the 200km stretch of track to Van Zeylsrus we spotted 4 Tawny Eagles and little else, the rains from the condition of the savannah here had obviously not reached here and had drawn the birds to the north.
We stopped to try and catch a Lilac-breasted Roller and had a bird come in and hover over the trap a few times then loose interested. When going to the pick it up however we were somewhat surprised to find the mate caught! The remarkable thing about these birds is how worn they get. With the constant landing and taking off from gravel roads these bird really put their feather wear to the test.
Checking in with the farmer where we were going to stay this night, he told us how he regularly saw a Martial Eagle sitting on the poles along the road here, when we left him, and got back onto the road to go to our bush camp we were quite amazed when we saw a great big adult Martial Eagle on the very pole!
We got a trap down across from the bird and really felt like we had earned this bird, but after a few hart-stopping bobs and peering, the bugger took off! Quite sickening and utterly deflating after such a dearth of birds and this our 4th drop for a Martial.
Still if it were that easy it would not be so absolutely thrilling and rewarding when you do catch one of these awesome birds.
Arriving at our beautiful bush-camp we sat with G&T’s and watched the sun set over the vast horizon, listening to the grating calls of Northern Black Koraans and Monotonous Larks singing all round us.
All in we caught 18 Birds of Prey of which 8 were Black-chested Snake-eagles, not a bad catch considering the weather conditions and of course our luck!