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Chasing Raptors at Helderberg Nature Reserve

I recently went through to Helderberg Nature Reserve with Monique to do some birding and help her grow her life list. We went through quite early in the morning, and it was my first birding visit to the reserve in a while. Since the pine plantations were cut down a few years ago I haven’t frequented the reserve much at all, figuring that it would have caused a decline in the number of raptors, since many bred in those forests.

Upon arriving, we caught sights of a couple of Olive Woodpeckers, a species that tend to be very reliable in the reserve. We first encountered a male bird, followed by a female a few minutes later.

olive woodpecker female
Female Olive Woodpecker
fiscal flycatcher
Fiscal Flycatcher

While getting closer to the Olive Woodpecker, I noticed something large moving into the Oak trees across the field. It was easily visible that it was an African Harrier Hawk, as the large grey raptor clawed up the bark, peeking inside the holes of the tree looking for its breakfast. We kept a decent distance on the bird, ensuring not to disturb its meal time. Every minutes the bird would fly to the next Oak tree, but seemed to always be obstructed by branches.

African Harrier Hawk
African Harrier Hawk

Wait… What?!

In the middle of following and waiting for the African Harrier Hawk, I noticed another raptor circling over the dam area in the reserve. I didn’t think much of it initially, assuming it to be a Jackal Buzzard, but as mandatory, I aimed my camera towards the bird and looked through the viewfinder. What the hell!? A Snake Eagle?! A Brown Snake Eagle at that. Despite having seen a few Black Chested Snake Eagles in the province, I hadn’t yet come across a Brown Snake Eagle, and just days before had considered trying to twitch one that was seen near Darling. It seems I didn’t have to, as one came to me. Now ignoring the AHH in the trees on my left, I followed the Snake Eagle as it passed over our heads and moved towards Vergelegen Farm.

brown snake eagle
Brown Snake Eagle

brown snake-eagle

All this time, the Harrier Hawk had remained next to us and seemingly in choreography, the bird took flight just as the Brown Snake Eagle passed us. This time the Harrier Hawk moved to the top of a clear open Oak, or what was left of the dead tree. The position of the bird was perfect with the light behind me and a small hill that I was able to move up adjacent to the bird, allowing me to get closer to eye level with it.

perched african harrier hawk

fluffy harrier hawk


harrier hawk in flight

It remained on the tree for a few minutes, fluffing itself up occasionally and shaking its feathers, before departing. Soon to be replaced by two more raptors in the sky above, a Booted Eagle (pale morph) and a Steppe Buzzard.

We continued to walk along the paths hoping to come across some Sun Birds who would allow us to get some photographs. There wasn’t much activity around though, despite some Cape Sugarbirds along the trail. We did manage to see a Lesser Double Collared Sunbird, Malachite Sunbird and Orange Breasted Sunbird, though not any particular good pictures of the birds.

cape sugarbird

lesser double collared sunbird

Overall, it seems that I may have missed out on a lot at the reserve during my absence, and a lack of pines doesn’t seem to indicate that there is now a lack of raptors.

Bryn De Kocks

Bryn is a passionate and opinionated antinatalist and naturalist with a love for nature, the ocean, photography, severe weather and music. He spends most of his time looking for new birds within the Western Cape, taking landscape photographs or behind his computer being a nerd.

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