Category Archives: mountain buzzard

Boredom In the Hospital But Freedom At Last!

Few things can be as boring as lying in hospital. Laila stayed with Munir Virani a fellow raptor fanatic, and with Sandy and Sandy, friends of ours at Athi. She managed to get in well before visiting hours. I was lucky. Lucky to not have the water tank fall a few inches closer and lucky that Laila coordinated such a cool-headed rescue and stayed and helped me through the following days. We had only just begun a few tentative excursions to the Aberdares, and were trying to be as productive as we could given that we still cannot leave Kenya because there is still the Lammergeyer (the most valuable of all the birds) left for release. We were testing out the vehicle and getting the hang of the cameras and procedure. We were doing quite well under these circumstances and had already got the best photograph I have seen of a Mountain Buzzard. It wasn’t great, but if we dally weeks to get the perfect shot of each of more than 100 species, we will be on the road for years. We cannot afford this. Laila has to get back and continue her life at the end of the year and time can run out quickly. We cannot let this accident slow us down.

I am known among friends and family as being able to bounce back very quickly after an accident. I have had quite a few. But I am older now, and the body just doesn’t do what it used to, nor recover as fast. But the head is the same and I have no intention of drawing this injury out any longer than it should. Laila is very strict that I should do as the doctor orders. I must now behave and listen because this trip is a joint effort. Laila is as much a part of the expedition as I and has as much to lose. We are partners in this work and I cannot let her and the many others down who have an interest in this expedition.

We went by taxi to the outskirts of Nairobi to stay four nights with David Gulden at Hog Ranch. This small sanctuary of indigenous forest and bush is the home of Peter Beard and shares it border with African Fund for Endangered Wildlife giraffe centre. It is a remnant of Karen Blixen’s old farm, unchanged from the original bush she first found there “under the foot of the Ngong Hills.” We stayed in spacious tents, surrounded by a busy family of Warthogs and a herd of Rothschild’s Giraffe. It looked and felt as though you were in the bush, but for the hum of humanity near its borders.

The days passed slowly with little to do but paint. Laila befriended “Becket” a black Lab, and videoed enough Warthog footage to make a documentary. When we arrived there were six babies, one dragging a back leg but in good spirits. Later that day, there were five. Laila thought to go find it to feed it up and make it strong. We went to go look for it, I on crutches. We found he had died in peace under a bush. His siblings thrived and continued to entertain us by pirouetting around in tight circles and having mock fights. Laila got to scratch a huge fat female warthog, while I filmed.

We saw a mewing Steppe Buzzard. It cries like a thin cat mew, high overhead. Odd that it should do so in its wintering grounds. There were distant vultures framed by the impressive Ngong Hills. We saw and filmed the Little Sparrowhawk, who sat bold and perky in a tree. We were desperate to photograph but the cameras were at home in Athi. A video camera was all we had. High overhead one morning, we heard the Crowned Eagle. Beneath in the thick foliage its cry was taken up by Robin Chats that mimic the call of many birds.

We were sorry to leave when Sandy and Sandy picked us up and took us to their home at Athi but it’s good to be back and we now have the cameras again.

Aberdare, Melanistic Servals and Mountain Buzzards

Very few places can duplicate the sudden transition, in the space of less than a meter from human-dominated landscape to apparent pristine jungle, as well as the Aberdare National Park in Kenya. The moment you cross a line you have your eyes peeled for animals which are abundant and secretive. As you drive through the lower forests and make your way to the higher altitudes, the forests change in species composition. The bamboo zone is at the limit of true forests, but beyond that there is hagenia woodland and Erika heath growing as tall as trees. Although the high heath moorlands look like those in Canada or Scotland, there are elephants and leopards.

Our target species on this trip was the Mountain Buzzard, a slender and less powerful hawk than the ubiquitous Augur Buzzard. The species, as its name suggests, lives in mountainous (or more properly, high altitude) habitats. The species is very similar to the Steppe Buzzard and Common Buzzards of Eurasia. It has a near relative in South Africa called the Forest Buzzard. They are tough to separate, all having similar wing and tail shape and fairly drab indistinguishable plumage. But the Mountain Buzzard is easy to separate if one gets a close look. They are dark grey brown, seldom with rust red tint on their chest. They have uniform dark spots down the front from chin to belly. They call, make territory flights and nest, whereas all other local look-alikes do not.

mountain buzzard
Mountain Buzzard

I personally have a disturbing feeling that the species is one of the rarest and most rapidly declining raptors in Africa. In the business of birds, it pays to be a skeptic and I worry about most records of this species. However, in view of the fact that we saw individuals at a lower altitude than I would have thought, perhaps records I had previously doubted may not be erroneous after all.

The mountain buzzard’s preferred habitat is moorland and hagenia woodland, juniper forest fringes to open highland heath. It hunts rodents in the short cropped grasses and herbs and sometimes in the tussock grasses. It is poorly designed for forests. However, the few that we did see close enough to photograph well were tight on the edge of this presumed altitude boundary.

aberdare moorlands
Habitat picture of moorlands

I had on an earlier trip caught a few and took blood samples for DNA analysis with a friend and raptor expert Bill Clark. They were fairly common six years ago, but we took two days of hard searching to find one. Perhaps significantly, we saw many Augur Buzzards, and on our first encounter with a flying Mountain Buzzard, we saw it get dive bombed and driven away by an Augur Buzzard. It is too quick an assumption to make that this species is being out-competed by the more aggressive and more successful Augur Buzzard. A few trips back to Aberdare NP may be more revealing.

Our attention was taken by other animals of course. I was driving when Laila turned and said “Simon!” Only a few meters from her, out jumped a Serval and raced away. We then saw another eight melanistic (black) Servals over the two days we spent on the moorlands. Melanism is predicted to occur at a higher percentage at higher altitudes in vertebrates, but the ratio seems little different with Augur Buzzards (which also has melanistic individuals) at this altitude and those at their lowest distribution.

The black Servals were stunning and we managed to call one close to the camera by mimicking the call of a squeaking rodent. It ran towards us and stopped just in front of the car.

black serval
Melanistic Serval (Photo by Laila Bahaa-el-din)

With only an hour left to exit the park and resigned to poor distant pictures of only two Mountain Buzzards, we rounded a bend to see one sitting in a tall tree. Unfortunately it was very high up, but the pictures Laila took are a valuable record of a poorly known raptor.