Kalahari: Big Brown Birds (a.k.a raptors!)

This is part of a series of photographs from our 2008 and 2009 trips to the Kalahari.  Click here to see a map of the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park.

I’m going to take a break from the furry animals this week, and show some of our bird photos. During our 2009 trip to the Kalahari, we made an attempt at photographing and identifying the Kalahari birds. Not being experienced birders, it was often a case of “oh look, there’s another Big Brown Bird!”, and trying to get as good a photograph of it as possible for later identification.  Still not an easy task as we discovered, because even armed with a very good Birds of Southern Africa field guide, with lovely colour photographs, some birds we saw just didn’t look anything like the ones in the book. It was only when I sent the photographs to a friend* (an ecologist and avid bird watcher), that I learned that some of those we couldn’t identify were in the juvenile phase of development, and didn’t have their adult plumage yet. Something not illustrated in our field guide. The fact that we were seeing so many juveniles was, I think, testament to the fact that the Kalahari had had good summer rains early in the year.

Once again it was very difficult taking good photographs. Raptors are plentiful in the Kalahari, and even though they do “pose” on top of trees, they often do so at some distance from the road.

Martial Eagle (©2009 WMB)

Martial Eagle (©2009 WMB)

Okay, so they weren’t all brown! The Martial Eagle is a very big, majestic bird – the largest eagle in Africa. I think this was only the second time (in four visits) that we have seen one in the Kalahari. According to the field guide these eagles can hunt prey as big as a Duiker (a small buck). Sometimes the Martial Eagle gets confused with the smaller Black-chested Snake-Eagle below.

Black-chested Snake-Eagle (©2009 WMB)

The Bateleur is a very unmistakable raptor, which is similar to the snake-eagles in body shape. The adult Bateleurs have dark eyes, red feet and beak area, and white markings on the wings. We saw quite a few of them soaring effortlessly above the savanna. I’ve included the photo below from another source to illustrate how distinctive the adult bird is, and how it differs from the juvenile phase.

Adult Bateleur in the Kruger National Park (Image: Ghislain Gosse)

The juvenile Bateleur below is less striking and also quite “fluffy”, especially around the head.

Juvenile Bateleur (©2009 WMB)

And now we get into Big Brown Bird territory . . .

Tawny Eagle (©2009 WMB)

Tawny eagles must have been the most common of the bigger raptors which we saw.  The colour varies from pale buff (often referred to as “blond” in guide books) through to a streaked dark brown. Most of those we saw were a medium brown, and because we saw them in various stages of development, lead to most of our “big brown bird” identifications. I’m sure some of those “big brown birds” were also African Hawk Eagles (see below).

Juvenile African Hawk Eagle (©2009 WMB)

An area like the Kalahari where there are plenty of available animal carcasses, naturally has vultures. The species we saw most often was the White-backed Vulture, although again it was difficult to get a good photograph as they nest on very high thorn trees.  Below is a snapshot of a White-backed vulture with a chick in the nest.

White-backed vulture with chick (©2009 wmb)

We did see a couple of owls at night, but it was too dark for proper identification or to take photographs.

The smaller raptors we came across included a lot of Southern Pale Chanting Goshawks, Gabar Goshawks, Lanner Falcons and Black-shouldered Kites.

Southern Pale Chanting Goshawk (©2009 WMB)

Southern Pale Chanting Goshawk with feathers blowing in the breeze (©2009 WMB)

A very typical silhouette in the Kalahari is a thorn tree with bird nests in it.

Thorn tree with bird nests (©2009 WMB)

One of the birds nesting in the above tree, was this Lanner Falcon with her chick (see below). Again the photo is taken at quite a distance.  It’s not a great photograph, but is an interesting one.

Lanner Falcon with chick (©2009 WMB)

The Black-shouldered Kites are such neat looking, little raptors.

Black-shouldered Kite (©2009 WMB)

I am sure that with our lack of experience in bird identification, we probably missed some of the more rare raptors in the Kalahari.  What I found especially difficult was judging the size of the birds from a distance, in order to decide what category they belonged in. I’m going to study the bird guide before our next trip there – hopefully we will do better then.

[* Thanks to David Joubert for help with the bird identifications]

This is part of a series of photographs from our 2008 and 2009 trips to the Kalahari.  Click here to see a map of the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park.


About lisa@notesfromafrica

I live on the Southern coast of South Africa, and write about the things that interest, amuse or inspire me. You can find me at http://notesfromafrica.wordpress.com and https://southerncape.wordpress.com (my photoblog)
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5 Responses to Kalahari: Big Brown Birds (a.k.a raptors!)

  1. M(i)zHitRun says:

    Have you noticed that the more predatory a creature, the more attractive it looks?

    Can’t wait for the next post 😉

  2. Dave Joubert says:

    Really good photos! “True eagles” e.g. martial, tawny, african hawk eagle, Verreaux’s eagle etc. have feathers all the way down to toes, snake eagles, including Bateleur (its family of snake eagles) have bare legs, check out the Bateleur in the photos, the black chested (why did they have to change it from black breasted, it sounds like the old censor board at work!) snake eagle in the pic also shows it but not so clearly

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