Chobe’s resident raptors

Chobe is a wonderland for wildlife photographers. The diversity of landscapes, scenes, flora, mammals, reptiles and birds is astounding. We photograph from a specialised boat operated and guided by CNP Safaris. It has a customised camera support system and the boat is flat bottomed, which makes it very stable shooting platform. We are on the boat every day in the morning from 6h30 to 9h30  and 15h30 to 18h30 in the evening. At this time of the year the river is rising, filled by the good rains as far away as the highlands in Angola. April is early autumn in the southern Hemisphere so the insect activity has diminished and many of the avian migrants have already headed back to their northern climes. While the mobility of the mammal population is dependent on the rains, the avian population is highly seasonal and has much to do with the air temperature which has a profound effect on the density of the insect population. By this time of the year, the cuckoos have moved north, bee-eaters such as carmines and blue-eared have also departed for northern parts. Many of the kingfishers are intra-African migrants and have also moved. The stork diversity has thinned out. A number of the eagles have migrated and so have a number of kite species.

“The very idea of a bird is a symbol and a suggestion to the poet. A bird seems to be at the top of the scale, so vehement and intense his life. . . . The beautiful vagabonds, endowed with every grace, masters of all climes, and knowing no bounds — how many human aspirations are realised in their free, holiday-lives — and how many suggestions to the poet in their flight and song!”

~ John Burroughs

Despite a major migration of species north from southern Africa in autumn, there is still an abundance of species which are resident in this part of the world. Thankfully my penchant for raptors is still satisfied even in autumn despite migrants like the Steppe, Lesser Spotted and Wahlberg’s Eagles having moved north. I am not sure where it came from but I think it must have been from my senior school days at Falcon College in Zimbabwe where we had a very active ornithological society, which was focused on raptors and where a number of the schoolboys practiced falconry. It is for this reason I look out for raptors when I go out onto the Chobe river.

“There is nothing in which the birds differ more from man than the way in which they can build and yet leave a landscape as it was before.”

~ Robert Lynd

On our first morning we saw this juvenile Martial Eagle perched on a large (fallen) dead tree. It was looking intently at something on the ground. It could have been a guinea fowl or small mammal. You could see it was a juvenile by its white face and neck. The adult has a dark brown head and neck and piercing yellow eyes.

Even from quite a distance you could see it was a Martial Eagle just by its sheer size. This youngster was moving his head around as if trying to get better perspective on its potential quarry. I am not sure why they do this but it could be to get a better sense of its distance to target.

As it heated up during the morning, we would see more raptors climbing into the developing thermals. This was a big raptor but I am not sure what it was. I think it is a juvenile Marsh Harrier but it was soaring and not flying low over the flooded reeds and grasses. It also looked a bit big for a Marsh Harrier. Looking at the shape of its head it looked like a Harrier or Buzzard. Perhaps it was a juvenile Jackal Buzzard. There was no barring on the tail feathers which eliminates quite a few possibilities.

“No bird soars too high if he soars with his own wings.” 

~ William Blake

We were sitting in the boat moored in an inlet watching all the wader activity when our guide pointed to a  juvenile Bateleur Eagle, which we did not see at first, until it moved. It was sitting next to the trunk of a fallen dead tree and was well camouflaged. Only when it moved onto a open dead branch could we easily see it. It sat there for ages intently watching all the goings on around the inlet. As any raptor photographer knows, it can sit there for longer than your patience will last.

A juvenile Bateleur has a greenish facial skin and cere where as a sub-adult has a reddish facial skin and cere.

“Every child is a born naturist. Their eyes are, by nature, open to the glories of the stars, the beauty of the flowers, and the mystery of life.”

~unknown

A Bateleur’s facial skin is also known to change colour depending on its level of excitement. This could have been a female sub-adult judging from the lighter primary feathers compared to those seen in males. The male’s primaries and secondaries are dark. This is one way to identify the sex of a Bateleur when it is perched.

Another sign that this could have been a sub-adult female was the darkened thin trailing edge on the underside of its primary feathers. I know only too well from past experience that as we start to pull out from our position the raptor we had spent the last half an hour watching will often fly and sure enough I was waiting for it. You need high shutter speeds (above 1/5000sec) to handle the moving boat and flying raptor and get the subject pin-sharp.

“The wilderness holds answers to questions man has not yet learned to ask.”

~ Nancy Newhall

A Fish Eagle sunning itself. It may have been hunting earlier that morning and could have been drying its wings.

“Each species is a masterpiece, a creation assembled with extreme care and genius.”

~Edward O. Wilson

The Marabou Stork will certainly not get any beauty accolades. Its bald, pinkish head and pinkish-white neck gives it a somewhat hideous look. We nickname these storks “Dr Death” as they usually sit on top of tree in the setting sun with their heads tucked into their shoulders giving them a macabre silhouette, as if guarding the cemetery. You can see from this character’s gular pouch on its neck that it was not excessively hot. Usually this gular punch hanging from its neck gets swollen when it is very hot as it acts as a thermo-regulator. The sac swells and contracts depending on the amount of cooling or heating the stork’s blood needs. 

We regularly see African Harrier-Hawks low gliding from tree to tree along the Chobe river. They forage in canopies of living trees and in dead trees. They have broad wings for slow deliberate flight among the trees. They also use these broad wings for balance when accessing crevices from difficult angles in trees and rocks.

This African Harrier-Hawk was inspecting all the cavities in this dead tree looking for nests. Those double-jointed legs are able to get into most “nooks and crannies”. You will often see drongos and rollers mobbing an African Harrier -Hawk as it makes its way along the river because they know only to well it could raid their nests.

This majestic adult Fish Eagle was perched on a dead tree stump giving it a perfect view across the river. Fish Eagles are primarily perch hunters and will take off from the perch and glide (albeit at speed) down to snatch the unsuspecting fish from the surface of the water. Fish Eagles are also  to hunt anything from jacanas to mongooses, if their main prey is scarce. 

Fish Eagles are highly territorial and can often be seen riding a thermal high above their territory and arching their heads back, while in flight, giving that iconic Fish Eagle call.

There is sexual dimorphism in Fish Eagles, not in their colouring, but the females are noticeably larger than the males. This is usually only evident when they are perched together in a tree. 

When you are on the river, you will usually see Fish Eagles in all seasons but the other raptors are unpredictable except perhaps the African Harrier-Hawk. On some trips you see a Martial and/or Bateleur and other times nothing. That is part of the mystery. When we set out first thing in the morning and afternoon we are all brimming with expectation. The amazing thing about the river is, from my experience, you never see the same animal or bird in the same place doing the same thing, so each outing is completely different, which helps explain why I keep going back to Chobe each year.

“We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals… In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.”

~Henry Beston

Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its inter-connectedness and let it be.

Have fun,

Mike

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