Talons over Serengeti

My penchant for raptors developed at the senior boarding school I attended called Falcon College in Zimbabwe. There was a very active Ornithological Society at the school and one of the extra mural activities was Falconry. My fascination for raptors has remained undiminished for the last 45 years. This Serengeti trip provided ample opportunity to feed my fascination for birds of prey.

“Photography is a love affair with life.”

Burt Uzzle

The second morning we were in the Serengeti we drove out north across the Grumeti River past the viewpoint close to one of the two dams in the area towards the the Raho river. Here we found a pride of Lion that had killed and almost completely finished off three Zebras. There were left overs and still some meat on the bones, but not very much.

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It was incredible to watch, while the Lions are feeding on the carcass there were one or two Vultures and a Tawny Eagle circling patiently waiting for the Lions to have their fill and leave the carcass. As soon as the Lions moved away, the raptors descended onto the carcasses from everywhere.

The Hooded Vultures were the first to fly in to feast. They are a similar size to a Tawny Eagle, and so have a chance of taking their share of the feast. The size and shape of the bill indicates that it eats the scraps around the carcass  but does not have the ability to mix it up with the larger Vultures and tear meat off the carcass. Like a Bateleur and African Harrier Hawk, the Hooded Vulture’s facial skin  brightens when its excited or alarmed. The adult Hooded Vulture has pinkish facial skin.

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The big guns flew past, Lappet-faced Vultures. This particular one was a juvenile who decided there was not enough to make it worthwhile joining the party.

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A few White-headed Vultures flew in to pick from the remains but did not stay long.

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White-head Vultures are uncommon. Size wise they are considerably bigger than Hooded Vultures but smaller than the Whited-backed  and Lappet-faced Vultures. They are big enough to claim their share but there was not enough to go around.

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“Of course, there will always be those who look only at technique, who ask ‘how’, while others of a more curious nature will ask ‘why’. Personally, I have always preferred inspiration to information.”

Man Ray

A dark morph Tawny Eagle was the first of the Eagles to arrive.

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The Tawny Eagle can be mistaken for a Steppe Eagle during summer when the Steppe Eagle migrates down into Africa. There are two key differences. The Steppe Eagle is much larger than a Tawny and its gape extends past its eye whereas the Tawny’s gap stops just in front of the middle of the eye. Obviously very difficult to tell the difference from a distance.

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This particular morning was defined by three different morph Tawnys flying into feast on the remains of the carcasses. This was a buff or blonde morph Tawny flying in. These raptors must watch each other very carefully to see when one has found some food.

“Photography is the art of frozen time… the ability to store emotion and feelings within a frame.”
 – Unknown

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Pale morph Tawny Eagle flying in and dominating a piece of meat and pushing a dark morph Tawny away.

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The Tawnys are more aggressive than the larger White-backed Vulture and the spreading of its wings is a clear signal of dominance.

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A juvenile Bateleur Eagle also flew in having watched the Vultures and Tawnys descending from their aerial vantage point. This Bateleur had been feeding a some scattered pieces of meat away from the main action which is why its feet were blood stained. Carrion is an important part of a Bateleur’s diet. 

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The Bateleur also had to give way to the Tawny invasion.

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“The two most engaging powers of a photograph are to make new things familiar and familiar things new.”
William Thackeray

The third Tawny morph was the streaked type. There were two streaked morphs which flew in and they looked much stronger and more dominant, than the dark and pale morphs.

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The way these raptors fly into a feeding area is fast and dramatic.

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They certainly look intimidating on “finals”.

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I love the way raptors’ wing tips spread out like fingers when they are slowing down.

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The alula on the wing elbow was still in place suggesting that this streaked Tawny was coming in fast.

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This streaked morph Tawny was not going to take any nonsense from the bigger White-back Vulture and pushed it off the piece of bone it was pecking at.

“Photography deals exquisitely with appearances, but nothing is what it appears to be.”
 ~ Duane Michals

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On a separate occasion, we saw this blonde morph Tawny try to push in between two Hooded Vultures perched on a dead tree branch quite close to the aforementioned dam. The interaction between these two species was the subject of my first post from my Serengeti trip.

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This was a particularly handsome character who decided to look for richer pickings.

“There are no rules for good photographs, there are only good photographs.”
~ Ansel Adams

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In the tree overlooking the dam just above where the lions had been feeding on a Zebra carcass, we saw a pair of Verreaux Eagle-Owls. We thought they might have  been waiting to fed on the remains of the Zebra carcass.

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Not so, they had other intentions. I did not manage to get a shot of the Verreaux Eagle Owl swooping down to the water’s edge to snatch up a large frog. This pair were hawking frogs from their perch overlooking the dam. I never realised they preyed on frogs. Normally when you see these huge raptors during the day they are in deep shade and their eyes are closed.  They have a diagnostic pink eyelid which is clearly seen when their eyes are closed.

“Learn how to see. Realize that everything connects to everything else.”
Leonardo da Vinci

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These Eagle-Owls always look so sleepy during the day but they were clearly watching all the goings on around the dam.

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This specie of Owls has especially long talons, similar to those seen on a Pel’s Fishing Owl. It is also Africa’s  largest Owl.

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We found this Secretary Bird quite close to the open area near the Grumeti runway. This character was striding through the grass and its mouth was open because it was panting as it was quite hot. This is Africa’s only very long-legged raptor. Both sexes look-alike.

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The next second it saw something ahead in the grass and ran off through the grass to catch it but missed. The Secretary Bird has substantial pads on the underside of its feet. It usually stamps on the ground to disturb its prey and then reigns blows on the victim with its feet to kill it. Secretary Birds are partial to snakes, insects, small birds, and small reptiles.

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After watching the Lion pride for much of the early morning, we decided to explore further north. In our travels we came across this Dark Chanting Goshawk. It did not let us get too close. The two types of Chanting Goshawk get their names from their melodious chanting calls.

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This is only the second time I have seen a Dark Chanting Goshawk, the other time was in Mashatu Game Reserve in southern Botswana. We usually see Pale Chanting Goshawks in South Africa and they are commonly seen in Etosha in Namibia. Dark Chanting Goshawks tend to frequent denser woodland areas than their pale counterparts which is why they are not usually seen as often as their pale cousins.

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On our last morning in the Serengeti this Black-chested Snake-Eagle was sitting at the top of a tree with a good view of its surrounding area, minding its own business. These Snake-Eagles are known to be a perch hunter but it also spends considerable time  on the wing in search of prey. They are known to hover frequently and are the largest raptors to do so.

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As with Rollers, Drongos and Lapwings, they taunt and harass any raptor close by.

“Distance lends enchantment to the view.”

Mark Twain

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Raptors have a nictitating membrane which covers their eye when they are washing, feeding or fighting or being attacked. This Snake -Eagle never knew which direction the Roller was coming from but instinctively its nictitating membrane started to cover its eyes during the aerial raid.

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After being pestered, and once it had seen some prey in the grass, this Black-chested Snake-Eagle flew down from the tree into the grass but we did not see it catch anything.

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We saw an amazing variety of raptors when we were in the Grumeti area of the Serengeti. We had concentrated bouts of raptor sightings. You cannot but hold your breath when trying to capture decent raptor images, it is thrilling.

“And those who were seen dancing, were thought to be crazy, by those who could not hear the music.”

Friedrich Nietzsche

One of the more intriguing aspects was the number of colour variations of Tawny Eagle we saw in one morning. All of this took place outside the main migration period showing just how much life and variety remain in the Serengeti outside the migration.

“No man has the right to dictate what other men should perceive, create or produce, but all should be encouraged to reveal themselves, their perceptions and emotions, and to build confidence in the creative spirit.”

Ansel Adams

Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its interconnectedness and let it be.

Have fun,

Mike

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