Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Limpopo Raptor Ringing Expedition
Feb 21st to March 2nd 2010

Andre and Eveline van Arken from Haarlem, Netherlands

We set off north on the Sunday morning to the Limpopo Province with accompanying mice, mealworms and Zebra finch.
Mice as always are an essential and vital component of such an expedition, the Zebra Finch equally but only in the chance of finding an Ovambo Sparrowhawk or Gabar Goshawk to tempt to trap.

First detour was in the Bela Bela area where we came across a young Pale-chanting Goshawk on a pole next to the road. It was a textbook catch and we had our first raptor ringed. Pale-chanting Goshawk (PCG) are common, but inexplicably absent from some parts. This bird was on the western most edge of its eastern range for this area, and a young one would possibly shed light on juvenile dispersal into other areas.

Head into the Nylsvley area where the famous floodplain was inundated and many herons and waterfowl were present. However very few raptors were, the exception were 2 Wahlberg’s Eagles which I had not seen in the area for some time.

Next bird was a Steppe Buzzard on the road from Polokwane to Hearnetzberg, this species is notorious for spending ages round or near a trap plucking up the courage to jump on the trap, but this bird must have been hungry!

We got to our site in the Woodbush Forest, an organic Avocado farm with a great garden surrounded by indigenous forest.
Set our nets and before sundowners had a few Southern Double Collared Sunbirds to ring.
That night we set a trap for Wood Owl, but only heard a distant reply.

The next morning we opened the nets at 0530hrs and caught a mixture of Cape White-eyes, Dark capped Bulbul, Sombre Greenbul and Amethyst Sunbird and watched the increasingly threatening weather come in, so went to close the nets to find a dead Bar-throated Apalis in the net and next to it the cause, an adult male Little Sparrowhawk!
Cape Parrots obviously love Avo’s as they were all over the place in and out of the trees scoffing the juicy stuff!

We set off on a raptor run and tried for a Jackal Buzzard who was far more preoccupied with something in a field the other direction from the trap. Got another Steppe Buzzard and then found a Honey Buzzard in a tree exactly where I had seen one in March 2006, not a common bird at all so probably the same one!

After a couple more drops for Steppe Buzzards with no success, we dropped for another but soon realised whilst looking at it on the trap that it could be a juvenile Forest Buzzard. Fortunately we caught the bird and confirmed it as a Forest Buzzard, an overall whiter bird with distinctive ‘tear drop’ markings on the breast as opposed to thinner streaking on juvenile Steppe Buzzard.

Spotted a Long-crested Eagle soaring over the valley and keeping an eye on it watched it drop to earth and so followed it to see if it had perched up. Sure enough, we found it on a pole round the corner and got a trap down. The bird came in twice, but only to look from the confines of a tree next to the track, eventually a car came along and flushed the bird.

We next caught a juvenile Steppe Buzzard and with the Forest Buzzard fresh in out minds compared the differences which were apparent. Long thin streaking as opposed to the tear-drop shaped marking of the Forest Buzzard.

Day 3
Set off north in the rain and down onto the plains where it remained pleasantly overcast. We spotted several Black-shouldered Kites and Steppe Buzzards but not able to drop. It was in the middle of a village that I spotted a huge Lanner Falcon sitting up on top of one of the spectacular Koppjies which characterise this part of the world.
We managed to get the vehicle off the road and across several cattle tracks and a football pitch to drop below the bird which was approximately 250+m above us., we backed off and in no time the bird was reacting and then dropped. What a sight, it was a massive female and came screaming down to land on the trap. With hearts in mouths we watched her looking at the mouse when just then a couple of kids came walking from the village, I reckoned we had a chance and that she was caught but then the kids were too near and she took off. AAAAARGH! So frustrating! Never mind, it was worth the excitement and to see such an awesome bird in action. We consoled ourselves by catching a Greater Kestrel a bit further on!

A couple of hours further on we started seeing Black-chested Snake Eagles which were in abundance across the vast stretch to the Soutpansberg Mountains, also a single Steppe Eagle a Wahlberg’s Eagle and dozens of Steppe Buzzards.
We caught two more Steppe Buzzards and an adult Pale-chanting Goshawk before we arrived at our destination, a bush camp under the Soutpansberg Mountains, getting a Brown Snake Eagle to come to trap but off at the last moment. That evening we managed to catch an extremely aggressive Pearl-spotted Owlet, obviously wound up by the call I was playing and savaged both our hands in the extraction process form both ends.

Day 4
Opened nets at 0530 and got a couple of Willow Warblers, Black-collared Barbet and a Southern Red-billed Hornbill.
We decided to move on and not before ringing a Secretary Bird which our hosts had been looking after since it had been abandoned, its parent(s) possibly killed by a Caracal. The young full grown bird was quite a handful even at the age of 4 months!

On our way we spotted a Wahlberg’s Eagle in the sky which was making its way towards us, I dropped a trap for it and backed off as the eagle immediately spotted the mouse and dropped. It landed on the fence above the trap and studied the situation for 10 minutes until dropping to the ground next to the trap where it proceeded to walk round it for another 10 minutes! We watched the bird for a full hour which occasionally made the odd grab at the mouse (getting caught briefly twice) before we finally had to get on with the day!, It was a great opportunity to watch the behaviour of this species and how captivated it was but suspicious of the mouse and trap.

On our way north we had a young Brown Snake-eagle come in and off a trap and tried for a Black Kite which showed some interest but never landed.

At the camp that afternoon, we set nets in a rocky area full of Mopani bush and were rewarded with an adult male Shikra and a Crested Barbet.
Watched a pair of Cliff-chats mob a Rinkhals, (bit like a cobra) which was climbing up a rock-face by the swimming pool.

Day 5
Opened nets at 0530 and caught a few birds, including White-throated Robin-chat, Kurrichane Thrush, Brown-crowned Tchagra and spring-trapped 2 Grey-headed Bush-shrikes.
Set off on a raptor run after a good breakfast around the Mpungubwe National Park. First bird was a cracking adult male Rock Kestrel, such a richly coloured bird. After trying to tempt a pair of Wahlberg’s Eagles and a Steppe Eagle out of the sky to no effect, we found a juvenile African Hawk Eagle sitting well hidden inside an Acacia and got a trap down. Great response and the bird was caught, an awesome bird.
Then 300m further on was a Black-chested Snake Eagle on an Acacia, again, got a trap down and after a minute the bird came in but landed 6m from the trap to walk in cautiously as they sometimes do. It was just about to launch itself onto the trap when all of a sudden a brown lightning bolt dropped vertically out of the sky in the form of a Wahlberg’s Eagle! A wonderful but short scrap ensued where the B-C Snake Eagle took off to leave the Wahlberg’s on the trap. Just then the 1st eagle was joined by a smaller male Wahlberg’s Eagle! With luck we could catch the two on the one trap but eventually after 20 minutes we ended up catching the male. Such wonderful interactions and so exciting to watch!
Another 300m later and we got a Shikra, it was turning out to be quite a morning!
Elephants were everywhere and so we had to be careful not to drop traps in the thick bush alongside the track!
Tried over the next hour for a Brown Snake Eagle, Steppe Buzzard, Dark-chanting Goshawk and a Gabar Goshawk to no avail before coming back to the area where we caught the two eagles earlier to find an adult African Hawk Eagle sitting up in a huge Baobab tree. Got a trap down and after much bobbing, the bird came in and wasted no time in attacking the trap and getting caught. Whilst ringing the bird a huge female Elephant appeared from the bush about 50m away, got our scent, rumbled her tummy, shook her ears at us before wandering back into the bush again followed by 30 or so members of her family!
About 5 minutes later we rounded a corner only to find an adult Black-chested Snake Eagle (probably the same one from earlier) back on its Acacia tree! Got a trap down and this time after a cautious approach, constantly glancing up in the sky, the bird got on the trap and was caught.

Opened the nets that afternoon and got Brown-hooded Kingfisher African Paradise Flycatcher, Jamison’s Firefinch, Dark-capped Bulbul and Grey-backed Camaroptera.

Day 6
Managed to catch the adult male Cliff-chat in the spring trap whilst packing up and having breakfast!
Set off back along the Mpungubwe road after out great success of yesterday and soon got action with another adult Shikra. Tried for another Gabar Goshawk and really tried to get a juv Lanner which was showing more interest in a colony of Red-billed Buffalo Weavers than out mouse and zebra finch combo!
Got 2 Dark Chanting Goshawk out of 4 on the way south and tried for a Lesser Kestrel, which was obviously full of grasshoppers from an adjacent field. Got another Steppe Buzzard and then spotted a Brown Snake Eagle on a pole, trap down and a straightforward catch, 1.8kg.
Spotted a few Wahlberg’s Eagles up in the sky which we tried for, but no luck. A bonus was spotting the second Honey Buzzard of the trip!

Got to the lodge on the Moglokwena River, a beautiful site, lawns, bush and great people who were running an ecological centre here.
Set a few nets and got five Woodland Kingfishers! That night tried to dazzle Firey-necked Nightjar, Water Thick-knee but too much moon out.

Day 7
Netting picked up another 2 Woodland Kingfishers, a gaggle of Arrow-marked Babblers! Took a drive round the reserve and got a pair of Pale-chanting Goshawks. Then had a Steppe Buzzard on the trap when all of a sudden a Wahlberg’s plummeted to the ground and chased off the buzzard! We waited with baited breaths but the eagle was too wary and once taking a stab at the trap got caught very briefly. Eventually a vehicle approached form the other direction and the bird took off.
Back at the lodge we continued to catch more Woodland Kingfishers, a remarkable tally of 8 for one site in such a short space of time. A bonus was catching a pair of Meve’s Starlings, locally common here but with a very restricted range in Southern Africa.

Day 8
Set off for the next camp and caught a huge female Pale-chanting Goshawk first off, then an hour later came across a pair of adult African Hawk Eagles and managed to get two traps down. At one point we had a bird next to each trap and I thought we were going to get the pair, but then the female got caught which scared the male off. Thus the eagle duly ringed, we released it and watched it join the male in a thermal, wonderful sight.

Over the next hour we got another Steppe Buzzard and a Shikra also spotting an adult Martial Eagle wing hunting but couldn’t get near enough to drop a trap. As we drove west, the land became noticeably drier which we learnt later was a ‘window’ that had not had rain for many months which would unfortunately affect out mist-netting success.

Getting to the bush camp we set nets and were rewarded with a single Emerald Spotted Wood-dove and Woodland Kingfisher. Making a night drive that night we encountered very little bird life, just a solitary Spring Hare, such a remarkable and odd looking creature.

Day 9
Opening the nets at 0530, I put Willow Warbler on the ipod and speaker and caught one bird only to have a Shikra get to it first. Fortunately we managed to ring the Shikra.
Sitting there listening to the bush awakening in the cool dawn, I looked up and very high up and moving north fast was a Eurasian Hobby! Such a thrill to see this bird which may have flown through the night from goodness knows where to be here on the Limpopo River this morning.

Leaving the camp early, we went on a raptor run and found a pair of adult African Hawk Eagles which showed no interest in the trap. Later on a Brown Snake Eagle showed considerably more interest and actually got caught briefly before escaping, so disappointing when that happens! Had another later come in to look at the mouse, but was more likely looking for snakes!
A bit later we got our 2nd Shikra of the day and 6th of the trip.

Back at the bush camp I spotted a ‘wheatear’ fly across the track and into a field. Stopped and scoped it to conclude that it was indeed a Northern Wheatear, a national rarity!
Mist-netting that afternoon produced a few more quality birds, Bennett’s Woodpecker, Grey-headed Kingfisher, Red-eyed Dove and Tropical Boubou. Tried the ipod and speaker that evening and managed to get Firey-necked Nightjar over the net a few times, but they soon lost interest.

Day 10 Johannesburg
Set off early and whilst waiting for a Steppe Buzzard, watched the N Wheatear again in the same spot, we eventually caught the Buzzard.
Abut 10km further on, dropped for a Brown Snake Eagle on a pylon, it came in almost immediately and we had the bird in minutes, what a monster at 2.3kg!!
A little later we came across an immature Black-chested Snake Eagle which shot off its perch seconds after dropping the trap. The bird was busy on the trap, when all of a sudden it looked up and suddenly took off only to be caught. I was on the case and was going in and had got into 3rd gear when out of nowhere a huge eagle dropped in a legs-down screaming dive and onto the trap just as the snake eagle got loose! I screamed to a halt 10m from the trap and with our mouths open, found ourselves looking at an enormous Tawny Eagle standing on the trap!
Hardly breathing we waited a very long couple of minutes for the Tawny to get caught and we had him!
It was a lovely pale morph 1st year bird at 2.3kg and it had a full crop, so obviously had not reached the stomach yet to tell it was full!
On releasing it, we watched it fly up, circling round and round until it got on a thermal and eventually disappeared to the naked eye in a vast piercing blue cloudless sky.
We carried on and dropped for two more Brown Snake Eagles without eliciting any kind of response and flushed an adult and young African Hawk Eagle off the road who were feeding on a dead Jackal. I found this rather surprising for this skilled predator.
Next we found a Brown Snake Eagle which did come to the trap and was caught, a juv at 1.9kg.
Then after lunch we took our 10th Steppe Buzzard for the trip and dropped for another Brown Snake Eagle, making a total amount of 10 drops for this species today!
Tried for 2 Black-chested Snake Eagles now well south of the Waterberg and would have had one but for a farm tractor flushing a bird off trap.
And rounded off the day with a last Steppe Buzzard before making a run for the airport.

Totals for the trip were
104 birds of 47 species, including 40 Raptors of 16 species