Category Archives: Tsavo National Park

The Food Pass

Laila wrote in one of her recent entries that we witnessed the rare Ovampo Sparrowhawk make a “food pass” in mid air. Food passes are essential when it comes to one mate giving food to another or to one of its young. But within a pair they serve a purpose in themselves. For example: When a pair need to maintain their bond at the onset of the breeding season, the male will dash off and get food, prepare it, and race back to present it to the female. In some species food is presented by either sex to the other throughout the year in an amicable way. Large eagles like Crowned Eagles stay together all year round and share their meals. We witnessed a male Pygmy Falcon in Tsavo West make a fast slanting dash from his dead tree across the road and smack into a grass tussock. He emerged quickly with something quite big in his talons and took off at top speed to a group of trees a few hundred meters away. We followed and sure enough we saw him present it to his mate and shortly afterward they mated. Off he went to go and see if he could find more! The presentation between Pygmy Falcons is usually bill to bill, accompanied by a lot of appeasement calls to reassure each party that nothing violent was about to happen. It is fairly obviously a demonstration to the female that the male is a grand food provider and will look after her and their young.

Aerial air-to-air passes of food often take place among those species of raptors that are heftily armed and killers of avian prey. So it occurs more often within large falcons and accipiters (Sparrowhawks and Goshawks). It is as though they do not want to make any contact. The female can be twice the male’s weight and in the confusion of being handed food she might cause harm. Indeed the act of mating in these species is a well orchestrated business with every sign being made before-hand to calm what could be a dangerous mission. The Ovampo Sparrowhawk food pass was just missed being captured on the camera although Laila got both the adult female and male neatly posed in a dead tree and in mid air. The female had sat on the nest all morning and had flown off her nest when the male came in calling gently. She flew to a dead tree first. We had half an hour previously seen the male zip over our heads after a small bird. The bird put into cover high in the tree canopy and the male poked about until out it flew to be chased out of sight. The male seemed committed and we both felt a bit sorry for the small bird, who may well have been the plucked and headless morsel presented to the female. In short he flew in, flipped over and threw out the food, which was snatched, dropped and caught. The food pass was so dramatic that I doodled a pen and ink drawing so as to capture the moment.

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Drawing of food pass

I was in Hell’s Gate National Park this morning. Oddly for this time of year I saw a lot of pre-nesting behaviour. The Verreaux’s Eagle pair were nest building, when I would have expected them to have a large chick. I saw Rüppell’s Griffon Vultures on large chicks however, a little more developed than at other colonies. The Augur Buzzards had had a few chicks on the wing but it looked like a few pairs had smaller young. On my way out I saw a pair of Lanner Falcons. The male was dashing about at high speed and the female kept flying underneath him and presenting her feet, as did he. I assumed he was passing food, but looking at the photographs I saw he had nothing. Yet this dry run was repeated time after time.

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Picture of Lanners “mock” food passing

Clearly the behaviour alone, not the food itself was important to them. It was a game. They went through the same routine in “mock” practice. That was an interesting insight as I had not appreciated it before nor would have learned about it had it not been for the high speed shutter of the camera.

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Success in Tsavo

Despite having got a few photographs of raptors in Tsavo West over the first three days we were there, it was rather disappointing. We saw very little in the way of vultures or any other raptor for that matter. We didn’t even see any of the lions or elephants that Tsavo is famous for. The only thing that did not disappoint was our place of stay with friends at Finch Hatton’s which is as beautiful and friendly as ever. In the wood by Finch Hatton is where we saw four species of hawk and heard a fifth.

We left Tsavo feeling a little glum and spent three days at the coast on a Southern Banded Snake Eagle mission. We saw two fleeting glimpses of the bird as it disappeared into thick forest so perhaps we will need to return next year for photos.

We drove back through Tsavo East National Park and were amazed at the contrast between what we got in three days before going to the coast and what we got in three hours in Tsavo East. Before sunset on that first day back, we saw three Wahlberg’s Eagle nests, a Martial Eagle nest, Fish Eagles, African Hawk Eagles displaying and lots of Bateleur Eagles. The red elephants of Tsavo also made several appearances.

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Young Wahlberg’s Eagle on nest

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African Hawk Eagle

We spent one night in Tsavo East before moving back to Tsavo West where we hoped to finally get the migrants we had been waiting for. Back in Tsavo West, we had a completely different experience from the previous time. We went briefly to Ngulia Lodge to talk to Colin Jackson, Graeme Backhurst and David Pearson, who were mist-netting thousands of migrants. It was certainly the premier destination for migrants and their human followers.

We also saw many more raptors and mammals this time around. It rained for our whole second night and continued to do so as we set off in the morning. Not too far down the road, we saw a couple of cars stopped and all the passengers standing on the road. We slowed down and asked if everything was alright and they responded that they were just looking at a Sooty Falcon. We jumped to attention – the Sooty Falcon is one of our much needed species to photograph. The observers of the falcon were none other than migrant-seeking birders Fleur Ngweno, Brian Finch, Gordon Boy and others! The rain had brought in the migrants and the premier birders.

We exchanged phone numbers with the birders and promised to be in touch if we saw anything exciting. We didn’t drive too long before we saw another falcon, accompanied by seven others: Amur Falcons! We watched as they sped through the air with full crops, catching termites in the rain. It was good to see but frustratingly rainy and dark so photographing them was tough. A little further on, we saw a few more and stopped. We watched as a swarm of over 200 Amur Falcons flew over us. We let the birders know what was going on and they turned up and were excited to see so many migratory falcons in one go.

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Female Amur Falcon

We camped near Finch Hatton’s that night and on our way to our campsite, we found a vulture roost. Simon had been worried that a large roost he used to know from a different location might have been wiped out by poisoning but we counted over 80 individuals at this new site so concluded that the roost must have moved.

We went back to the forest by Finch Hatton’s first thing in the morning. We saw rare Ovampo Sparrowhawks swapping food in the air, Cuckoo hawks building a nest, an African Goshawk, a Fish Eagle and a Harrier Hawk and heard the Little Sparrow-Hawk calling, all in a little patch of Yellow Fever forest by the lodge. It was a great photo opportunity.

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Ovampo Sparrowhawk with prey

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Cuckoo Hawk

This first 11-day trip ended up being immensely successful, but it also highlighted some of the difficulties we will have throughout this expedition. If we had made conclusions after we spent our first three days there, we might have said that raptors in Tsavo are not doing very well. But spending those extra four days there on return from the coast proved otherwise. It is going to take a lot of time, patience and collaboration with other people to get an idea of what is happening over the whole of Africa.

Searching for Eagles in Tsavo

Laila and I spent the last few weeks on safari photographing raptors in Tsavo National Park and at Sokoke Forest at the coast.

It was a productive period which we first began with old friends at Finch Hatton’s in Tsavo West. I started out on crutches thanks to my recent leg and hip injury, but as the warmth increased I soon felt less uncomfortable and got rid of them. We spent two days there looking for Steven or Emily, two Crowned Eagles I released years ago in their forest. Unfortunately we did not see either of them, but we did see many other raptors. We saw a number of Bateleur Eagles and to my relief a good number of vultures roosting away from their normal site at the Kitani Bridge.

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Bateleur Eagle

Laila reminded me that this vulture satellite roost was active in the same spot last year. These vultures are particularly good to see given the extent of poisoning in the areas adjacent and within the park boundaries. A massive female Martial Eagle sat in a tree above our heads unfortunately in poor light. I realize now how much we, as photographers, think in terms of “good light.”

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Martial Eagle

Laila is one of the fastest camera-women I know. She can throw the long lens camera to her eye and shoot a moving target with unnerving accuracy and speed. I try to duplicate the shots with my lens and although pleased with what I achieve I feel totally beaten by the fantastic shots she makes. I have learned to angle the car to her side and have become complacent in knowing that she’ll have the “bird in the bag,” no matter where it moves. She looks a little absurd for she is small and the camera huge. She counterbalances the lens by leaning back and at a distance looks like a perfect “T” shape. I am not surprised that she sometimes complains of a bad back. Some of her pictures are classics, unparalleled to my knowledge by any others. We have been through some trying times and tough moments in which we have both questioned the sanity of our mission. But peering over her shoulder at some of the images captured I am both amazed and excited that we will produce a wonderful collection of images of African raptors. The results have far exceeded my usual overly critical expectations.

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Pygmy Falcon

As we drove we counted the raptors we saw. I try and keep my attention on the road, and Laila usually spots the birds first. I then verify her identification and she writes it down next to the mileage. The data produced does not give a true number of what is around but it is one way of setting a standard and a rough index of species composition and density. There is a clear difference in raptor numbers between rural farmed land and ranches and protected areas. In rural areas which comprise much of the route, there are very few species and very few of them. In protected areas the species diversity increases dramatically as do their numbers. In ranch land or areas in which some natural habitat is still relatively undisturbed raptor numbers can be good, but typically made up of a handful of tolerant species. It is plausible therefore to look up at the sky and tell where you are! The bigger message is of course that many raptors are now dependent upon protected areas and active tolerance of wildlife.

Tsavo West has the advantage of having mountains and ridges on which you can sit and gaze out across the plains beneath with the wind blowing vertically up the side. It is on these ridges like these that eagles and falcons slope-soar. They can move without a wing beat and travel fast. On migration it is just these slopes that raptors use to lessen their energy requirements. In mid to late November there are numerous migrants that sneak in under cover of rain clouds feeding on rising clouds of winged termites. But the rains were late. We did see a number of Steppe Eagles a few Harriers and Eurasian Hobbies.

We went on to stay with Charlotte and Norbert Rottcher at Vipingo on the north coast. They live on a 100 acre patch of mostly indigenous forest with large bat caves. They have breeding Barn Owls, Fish Eagles and Black Sparrowhawks in this remarkably rich and bio-diverse area that is crying out for proper conservation status. We spent one evening at the mouth of a bat cave watching the frantic flight of hundreds of fruit bats while Genet Cats lurked to seize those that collided and fell. Then we went on to meet William Kombe at Sokoke Forest in the hope of photographing the rare Southern Banded Snake Eagle. We saw two but time did not allow us to linger and we pressed on to Tsavo East via Malindi.

Laila will write the next entry regarding Tsavo East and our lucky encounter with large migratory flocks of small falcons in Tsavo West. The day after we arrived back from safari Laila returned home to spend Christmas with her family. It was a fast pace of high intensity work followed by sudden cessation and despite having a mountain of work to complete I feel at a loss right now.

For the Africa Raptor Expedition to proceed on schedule it is essential that I find a home for the last bird in my care, the Bearded Vulture. The car, test driven over some of the roughest sections has done well mechanically but fails in being properly outfitted for a trans-Africa trip. These issues must be resolved quickly when Laila returns and we continue with our work across southern Africa in January 2009.

Release of three Crowned Eagles at Kitich and Tsavo 2005: Part 1

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Photo 1. Mutu. Sub-adult male Crowned Eagle.

In 2005 friends and I released 3 Crowned Eagles. Two were born at home the other was brought in as a wild rehab. They were raised and hunted at wild prey. We took them to a wild and remote place in northern Kenya called Kitich. Here I met interesting people, a conservation area under passionate care and had a number of rare moments that I share here in diary form.

I had then tried to put the entry out into a blog, but had no idea how it all worked and as a result it sat idle in a computer that has since destroyed itself. I found it again and Paula Kahumbu at Wildlife Direct thought that I could re-submit it in parts via this blog.
Here goes.

It isn’t easy to launch straight into this particular subject without any lead-up or background. A few paragraphs need to explain where, why and how we got into the eagle release programme.

I am much too cynical to only present the up-beat chipper side of our work. I suspect that we should, just to make sure everyone is happy and positive and dish out the money.

Reports of great success from the field go together with pats on the back, limelight kudos and good career prospects. No-one is going to read a miserable report (don’t worry this story ends well!). If one is clever one can make a big deal out of a small thing. While doing so it would be foolish to mention the failures in the project, the mistakes, the problems….for it will not be received well by ones’ colleagues, readers or supporters. But if one tells the truth surely everyone will be that much better informed?
There is so much to learn from the downsides. If anyone is going to support wildlife work I’d much rather we’d be honest from the beginning and tell them that failure and disappointment are all part of the deal. If they don’t accept this then they (and us) aren’t being realistic. In my experience I’d rather have no support than adhere to goofy utopian ideals or ludicrously high expectations set for us. Nothing is more intimidating than to enter a project with the mandate for success. In wildlife releases it is literally do or die, and one can go down with the ship.

Idealism plagues wildlife management today. It always will. I am hopelessly attached to “my” eagles and would do all that is possible to save them. I am as bad as everyone else and I am not stupid. It would be career suicide to moan about the impossibility of projects and the hopelessness of doing anything about wildlife conservation in the face of burgeoning humanity. No one is going to support you if you stare unshaven and unkempt at the contents of a brown paper bag for inspiration. Sometimes you feel like it. But equally sometimes you feel so insanely happy at the wonder of nature and the ability to make a difference that you have all the energy in the world. You wish others would see it too, instead of being miserable stuck in the mud policy makers…get out and be pro-active!