Kgalagadi’s magnificent birds of prey never disappoint and, even on days when the big cats are shy, there’s plenty of action. By Romi Boom
On my annual autumn pilgrimage to the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, we tallied five cheetahs and a handsome leopard, but once again the raptor sightings – around almost every bend in the road – provided the most excitement.
I was flummoxed to spot a shikra in the Auob riverbed, where it was hunting from a high tree perch but no leafy canopy. These small raptors are fairly scarce in this neck of the woods, preferring stands of tall exotic trees in woodland regions. The yellow eye, diagnostic of a juvenile, helped confirm the ID.
Our next delight was a streaky tawny eagle, showing off its beautiful rufous-brown colouring. Checking in The Raptor Guide of Southern Africa by Ulrich Oberprieler and Burger Cillié, I learnt that most adult males are tawny, while females are often dark brown and streaked. It further differs from the steppe eagle in that the gape extends to below the centre of the eye only and not to behind the eye.
On a blue-sky morning we ticked the first of several black-chested snake eagles. This handsome, large raptor may be confused only with the adult martial eagle, but its white underparts are unmarked and it has the large yellow eyes of a snake eagle.
The next act in the show, still in the Auob, was a feast of pygmy falcons. First one, then two together, then three in one camelthorn tree, they put on a hard-to-beat performance. Pygmy falcons drop down in a short swift swoop to catch prey on the ground and it was the female (note the chestnut back) that swooped in first with a handsome catch. I watched her swallow a mouse until just its legs were dangling from her tiny beak.
A juvenile martial eagle – my all-time favourite bird – entertained us on an afternoon drive as it appeared to be mesmerised by whirling butterflies. No sign here of being an aggressive hunter which often takes large prey. This youngster, still pure white below, would retain its immature plumage until about five years old; it only acquires full adult colouration aged seven.
There was no mistaking the rufous chest, dark brown eyes and yellow cere of the jackal buzzard sharing a waterhole with two secretarybirds. An interesting nugget, shared by Dr Anton Odendaal, chairman of BirdLife Overberg, is that jackal buzzards are no longer ringed, because it has been found that each one has a unique feather pattern on that handsome chest. Jackal buzzards are endemic to southern Africa and favour areas covered with grass or other short vegetation. The secretarybirds too prefer open country, especially grassland and semi-desert. They are regularly seen stomping the ground in the Kgalagadi to disturb prey such as grasshoppers and beetles.
On this trip I did not see many owls, although a spotted eagle-owl in broad daylight was very obliging. Many a Kgalagadi-goer can attest to the excitement of finding an owl outline in a tree during the daytime when owls normally roost in motionless camouflage.
As always, the ubiquitous southern pale chanting goshawks delighted us with their orange legs and cere. We double-checked our triple vision when we spotted three barred bellies, lined up neatly like a chorus line on stage, the décor being thorns and pods. Their association with honey badgers is legendary, and the take-home memory of this trip was to see them supervising badgers on the hunt – a trio of fabulous sightings on three consecutive days.