A Weekend of Raptors

The week started out less than great, on the night of my previous blog post, my car was broken into – drivers side window smashed and my GPS stolen, while I somehow never heard the alarm go off. This was followed by a rush to get a new window installed prior to taking my car to the panel beaters to repair damage from a recent accident, where someone reversed into me.

Friday 14 September 2012

My first visit on Friday was during my lunch time and while it was fairly quiet, I managed to see one raptor flushed by some Pied Crows, it was far in the distance but I took a record shot to see which of the assumed Cape ‘Mystery’ Buzzards it was, but when I got home and uploaded the image, I was very surprised to see that the individual looked much lighter than the Mystery Buzzards, in fact – I was convinced it must be a Forest Buzzard, I spoke to Tertius about it, as well as got some input from Lisle Gwynn, who is studying the Cape Mystery Buzzards. After a complete ‘cluster’ of a few hours after my lunch break, I managed to eventually get my car back and then head to the Helderberg Nature Reserve. I arrived at the reserve and met Tertius Gous there, we waited in the area of the breeding Cape ‘Mystery’ Buzzards and managed to watch them exit and enter the forest a couple of times, but then it got a bit quiet, so we decided to head to the opposite end of the reserve and have a look at the forest on the other side. The path leading to the location where we were headed was like a small river, with currents strong enough to sweep away a small bird. We battled through the water, mud and tick-infested grass and eventually ended up on a dry area of land just near the forest in question, it wasn’t long before we were entertained by a Karoo ‘Scrub Robin’. Unlike most of this species, he was more than willing to climb onto the tops of the small bushes and call, with us a few mere feet away. This species tends to be quite shy and will usually jump down to the ground and hide in the brush rather than display, another joined him, followed by a Robin Chat, some Common Waxbills and Karoo Prinia were also present, but if success is determined by the target species (or group), our search for raptors in the far forest failed.

Forest Buzzard (Low quality ID photograph)

Cape ‘Mystery’ Buzzard

Uniform rufous Cape ‘Mystery’ Buzzard

We headed back towards the entrance as while the sun was still healthy, the reserve still closes its gates at 17:30, til 1st November, when the time’s extended to 19:00 and then from December until 20:00. We then decided at the cars that we would park outside the gate, since the one forest borders the fence of the reserve, and use the setting sun’s optimal lighting angle and try to catch some more activity. Things started to pick up with Buzzards coming and going, at one stage there were 3 in flight around the forest, leaving us with the decision of which ones to try and shoot. It was at this time that we caught a glimpse of one of the birds that looked unfamiliar to us, slightly lighter markings – yet not appearing to be one of the ‘first year adults’. An hour after the gates closed, the sun set and we called it a day, a very successful couple hours.

Saturday 15 September 2012

After Friday’s success, I decided that I would dedicate Saturday to raptor watching, though I had one specific raptor in mind. Between Friday evening and Saturday morning, Tertius had forwarded me an e-mail with an image he had taken earlier in the week of the same light coloured Buzzard I had seen on Friday, the bird was most definitely a Forest Buzzard, his photograph was much better than mine and managed to show this beautiful birds colouring well. Almost completely white, with the trademarked Forest Buzzard darker markings – a really incredible looking individual. This was going to be my target for the weekend. I woke up early on Saturday, and got to the reserve at around 07:40 – Tertius was going to try and make it to join, but was held up in another commitment. I started the day by walking around the forests, by 08:15 there were some calls coming from inside the forests, the raptors were becoming a little bit more vocal.

Pale Cape ‘Mystery’ Buzzard

I managed to get a few photographs early on as the birds circling just outside the forest, but then I was distracted by the sound of a Klaas Cuckoo, a bird I have yet to see and photograph. I started calling back and it was very eager to respond each time, walking around 700m I finally managed to track down the general area where the call was coming from – Doh! As luck would have it, the bird decided the best place in the huge reserve to sit, would be a large tree inside of the restricted area water treatment facility area, so I had to give up on that tick. I decided to hang around that area regardless, as that is where the ‘far forest’ is, along the western side of the reserve. A group of Alpine Swifts were flying directly overhead, keeping me distracted, but out of the corner of my eye – as it perched, I saw an unidentified raptor. I edged closer towards it, though it was still a good distance away (50-80m), then it took flight! The Buzzard had clearly noticed me and wasn’t quite sure what I was, or what I wanted – it began to circle directly above me, as if curious. It was offering some great photographic opportunities, at first I wasn’t sure what it is – but then I noticed the black and rufous chest and the logical conclusion was that it was a young Jackal Buzzard, typically the Juvenile Jackal Buzzards have a brown belly, while this individual clearly was getting his black head, rufous collar and black stomach – it’s my estimate on that, that this bird must be between Immature and Sub-Adult.

By this time the temperatures outside were getting a bit rough, after months of sub-20s weather, it was 11am and it was already 27’C. I grabbed something to drink at the Oak Cafe in the reserve and then headed back to the Cape ‘Mystery’ Buzzard forest area, things were still a bit quiet, but then I saw some commotion in the distance and ran to the top of one of the hills, and saw in the distance a light raptor being bothered by a pair of White-Necked Ravens. I stood still, and before long the bird was heading directly towards me, stopping just in front to circle around. At a distance I was thinking “Yes, a Booted Eagle!”, but as it got close, I could see hints at colours similar to the other Immature Jackal Buzzard I had seen earlier, though this was definitely another individual, with much lighter markings. Of interest is that while Tertius was hiking the same day, he came across a third, differently marked Immature Jackal Buzzard higher up on the mountain, though he was lucky to also have seen a couple of light morph Booted Eagles higher up too.

Immature Jackal Buzzard

Immature Jackal Buzzard

Immature Jackal Buzzard

I had now retired for a bit to the shade of the pine trees when I got a call from Pieter LaGrange who wanted to come and do some raptor watching in the reserve. I met up with him and showed him the perched Black Sparrowhawk, while he was photographing it, I kept my eyes to the skies – where I saw one of the two Jackal Buzzards from earlier, this time being bothered by several Pied Crows. I wandered around a bit, looking hard for that Forest Buzzard, but no luck. On the way back to the general area of our cars, we managed to see in the very far distance an African Harrier Hawk, one of the more common raptors, but seen less frequently in the reserve than the Buzzards are. Pieter then left, and I continued to monitor the skies for the Forest Buzzard.

Immature Jackal Buzzard

Immature Jackal Buzzard

Karoo Prinia

After a few hours of Cape ‘Mystery’ Buzzard action and plenty more photographs, Neal Cooper showed up unexpectedly and joined in the birding. I also took him to where the Black Sparrowhawk usually perches, and as always the bird was there, obliging and very calm with human activity near by, this is likely because the bird is nesting, or is a result of a previous nesting pair which nest right where the nature reserve workers dump the piles of off-cuts from the trees, and is generally often a noisy and active area. We went looking for the Swee Waxbills again, to an area where I have often encountered them, but alas they were not here – though I had seen them throughout the day carrying nesting materials to the forests. We stood around and watched the skies for a while, sun still baking us alive… Then the distinct sound of the woodpecker filled the air, it was knocking heavily on a tree in the forest, the Olive Woodpeckers are quite common in the reserve, but Neal was yet to see or photograph one, I took him to the area where they were last time and it wasn’t too long before we got sight of it, a female building a nest in one of the dead pine trees, she had already gotten quite far too and could fit at least a third of her body in it.

Pale Mystery Buzzard

Also of vast interest for the day was the fact that one of the Mystery Buzzards I had taken a photograph of, was in fact ringed! While we knew previously of the dark rufous one which was ringed, this new ringed individual was much lighter, and a separate individual. Now the question remains, where are they getting ringed? Where are they coming from!?

I then called it a day, while there were some good sightings and I managed to get some photographs I was happy with, I was unable to find that beautiful Forest Buzzard… But that’s why there are Sundays.

Sunday 16 September 2012

I woke up early again with the same goal as Saturday, find the Forest Buzzard! Arrived at the reserve as the sun was coming up and within minutes I was forced to take off my long sleeve shirt and resort to just a t-shirt, there was a slight north-easterly wind which brings a berg wind to the area, so temperatures were already in the low 20s. I was there for about an hour until the Cape Mystery Buzzards became active, flying from the forest and calling. I then decided to walk along the other forest where the Rufous-Breasted Sparrowhawks nest, and while walking alongside the forest on the path, I noticed something drop down from the trees onto the forest floor, I quickly grabbed my camera and fired off a few shots, before the bird ascended back into the familiar territory of healthy pines, a beautiful Rufous-Chested Sparrowhawk, unfortunately a small plant was right in the way of me and the bird and ruined what could have been a great shot, but it still manages to capture a certain character of the bird, eye gleaming.

Rufous-Chested Sparrowhawk

Perched ‘Mystery’ Buzzard with Steppe Appearance

More walking around, to all ends, back and forth – it was really too hot for all that, so I ended up sitting in the shade for a while, watching the two Cape Mystery Buzzards being bothered by Pied Crows as they flew together.

‘Mystery’ Buzzard with Steppe Buzzard Appearance

‘Mystery’ Buzzard with Steppe Buzzard Appearance

After feeling a bit more revived due to the cooler temperatures on the forest’s side, I decided to walk towards the Rufous-Chested Sparrowhawk forest again, though this was a good 2 or so hours later. On route there, I had one of the pale Buzzards fly towards me from the other forest, passing over my head, this individual was lighter than most of them and looked almost identical to the general Steppe Buzzard in markings, right down to the pale throat. While due to the time of year, this is probably one of the pairs of these Cape/Mystery/Elgin Buzzards. Though it got me thinking, this individual may actually be a completely normal Steppe Buzzard that decided to stay in the Cape instead of migrating back and choose to possibly breed with one of the more rufous Mystery Buzzards. The fact that we can’t tell whether we have a Steppe that choose to remain and hybridize here or whether this is merely the result of a Steppe/Forest hybridization itself offers a glimpse into the details of just how complex this whole Mystery Buzzard case is. There are so many variables, and for every answer there are ten new questions, but hopefully with all the research that is being done, we will have some answers soon. Though the journey is a great one, and I will rather focus on seeing, photographing and learning about the birds that are here, as opposed to the information about them, though don’t get me wrong, the information will be great, I just want to appreciate the birds themselves too.

Cape Mystery Buzzard

Perched rufous Mystery Buzzard

I then ran into Heide, a member of the bird club, who was also spending some time looking up in the Rufous Sparr forest. I told her that I had just seen one of the non-dark morph Black Sparrohawks being bothered by some crows, she responded by saying that she hadn’t properly seen a Black Sparr before, so it was off to the other forest again where the individual from the previous day was still perched, offering her some photographic opportunities, as well as the chance to just watch this majestic raptor, perched in tranquility. While we were there, we also saw a pair of the Cape Buzzards flying by overhead above the forest opening where we were, I decided to follow them as opposed to stay by the Black Sparr, though they stooped quickly into the trees within Erinvale.

Black Sparrowhawk

It was now mid afternoon and the temperature was 33’C, I would have loved to stay some more, but it was just too hot. I ended up calling it a day, and in turn a weekend. The results of the weekend were pretty good, while I/we never saw too many different species, there were definitely some keepers out of the photographs and I’m finally learning how to take bird photographs, GET CLOSE. But with that said, I would like to make it clear that I try my hardest to remain as far away from the raptors nests as possible, and will often sacrifice good photographs in order to keep the birds calm. As a lover of birds I want to see more successful breeding and the way to do this, is to show the birds some respect in terms of their territory. While nest shots are necessary for studying the development and success rate of chicks, I urge everyone to think about the birds before they think about their photographs, luckily all the people I have birded with have shown a like-minded approach, but with many photographers it’s photographs first, which is a practice I strongly oppose.