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.
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.
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.
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.