Tag Archives: Kalahari

Joining the Raptor Road Trip

A guest post by Rob Davies!

It was my favourite thing to do … couple of days in Cape Town, getting back into Africa mode, then that amazing flight into the dry, seeing the vegetation recede and the land redden as one approached the heart of the Kalahari. The sky was gold and the swifts were milling about as I stepped off the little plane in Upington. I spent an hour scoping out the hire cars, watching the swifts and just generally enjoying being back in Africa while I waited.

Life definitely keeps you young in Africa – Simon had not changed an iota since I had seen him last in Kenya 10 years before. Then I had been doing an overland trip in an old Land Cruiser with a friend of mine who studied primates, we had driven up from South Africa to Uganda to see the Mountain Gorillas. So much of this blog of Simon and Laila’s reminds me of that amazing trip – the rains, the vehicle hassles, the challenges but also the wonderful rewards. I was very lucky that Simon and Laila invited me to join them for part of their adventure.

Simon and I first met in Nairobi in 1985. I was very impressed with his knowledge of African raptors and it was great to see his collection of raptors, all very well looked after. I remember driving out of town in his old Land Rover to camp under some cliffs where Lanner Falcons were hawking bats. The bush vehicle that he and Laila picked me up in in Upington could have been the same beast – it had put on a bit of weight and its skin had wrinkled like some tough old rhino hide. I asked him whether he had had it vulcanised but he said no, it was the paint job. This was a seriously bush vehicle, full of tools and customisations and well, stuff. I felt very lacking in ranger stripes in my shiny silver “Mr. Bean” hire car as we drove up to the Kalahari park the next day.

We stopped at one point in the heat to give the vehicles some water and as I looked around I could see golden grass everywhere – we found out later that the Kalahari had received more rain than ever before in the month of February. I was looking for big finch flocks but instead we saw growing numbers of the tiny Namaqua Doves as we approached the park and this set the scene for the amazing photos we came back with – of Lanner Falcons hunting them at the water holes.

The park was fully booked for the next two days so we stayed with my friend Prof Anne Rasa who is famous for her work on mongooses. She owns a beautiful farm just outside the park gates where she takes visitors on walks through the red dunes. Laila has already told you about the little baby meerkat and what a great raptor spotter he was – 25 million years of evolution can’t be wrong! That first evening was Anne’s birthday and we had dinner with other friends including Dr. Gus Mills who is an expert on African carnivores and is running the cheetah research work in the park. I was a bit alarmed when Gus said he hadn’t seen many raptors lately – I had been bigging up this place as the Nirvana for the raptor road trip and had been going on about the Kalahari to Simon for yonks. But Gus as usual was pulling our legs …

Later that evening Laila showed me the photographs she had taken of the raptors and other wildlife along the way. I was completely blown away by the quality and sheer quantity of beautiful images that she has captured. And this is less than half way through their journey! I realised what an amazing project this is and what a brilliant partnership these two make – I don’t think there are many people around who know African raptors as Simon does, and this combined with Laila’s skills with the camera – well watch this space …

Simon and Laila’s trip interested me because this is the first trans Africa raptor road count that I have heard of. It has been great to see this blog, and all the raptor e-mails bouncing around the continent and the world on the new African Raptor list-server. Africa is the only huge continent which straddles both hemispheres of the globe but all of a sudden it seems a bit smaller and more connected. Africa hangs on to the richest diversity of birds of prey against huge pressures from human population growth. We desperately need to take a trans-boundary approach if we are to safeguard these precious birds and their beautiful natural habitats. In addition to the books they are doing, this epic trip of Simon and Laila’s will develop the road count methods as well as generate valuable data for a continent wide database of African birds of prey.

I am glad to say the Kalahari did deliver the raptors in the end as you have seen from some of Laila’s beautiful photographs. I think it has been the highest densities of raptors that Simon and Laila have recorded so far on their trip. We all came away from those 10 days with amazing records and photographs of what we saw, but the best of it was the fun and adventure with Simon and Laila and my cousin Col.

Thanks guys, this adventure of yours is epic, and it was great to navigate some dunes with you in my “Mr. Bean” car!

Rob Davies

Fizzle the meerkat joins the expedition

Simon and I were joined by Rob Davies for the Kalahari leg of the expedition. Rob is a raptor expert who knows Simon from way back. He lives in Wales now with his wife and young child and is working on a field guide to African Birds of Prey with Bill Clark. He sent us a small computer system called a PDA to log our data in a few months ago and we had been talking about meeting up in the Kalahari ever since. As it turned out, he arranged the whole 10-day Kalahari trip for us, making all the bookings, and it was lucky he did as the place was fully booked when we got there.

We spent the first few days with Anne Rasa, a renowned small-mammal biologist. She was looking after a young rescued meerkat called Fizzle. I got quite attached to Fizzle over those few days. Meerkats are incredibly social creatures and Fizzle was always either running around on high energy or curling up with you. Anne took us for a walk along the dunes, telling us about the Kalahari’s plants and animals, imparting knowledge on everything down to the smallest insect. It was fascinating and having Fizzle with us, digging up insects along the way, added to the fun.

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Anne talking to the group

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Fizzle digging up insects

In the afternoon, we all went for a small drive around Anne’s property. Rob, Fizzle and two other guests went in the car with Anne, and Simon and I followed in the Range Rover behind. We stopped a few times and all got out of the car to examine something, or check a Social Weaver nest for Pygmy Falcons. After the second stop, Fizzle decided to come in the car with Simon and me. I found myself wishing he could join us on the expedition. Not only is he good company, but he picks out raptors miles away, long before any of us see them! (Please note that Fizzle was rescued from a family who had taken him as a pet and could no longer handle him. Wild animals should not be kept as pets. The demand for wild pets has been the cause of much animal cruelty and drives wild populations towards extinction).

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Fizzle in the car

The Kgalagadi Tranfrontier Park is an altered ecosystem. Along the two mostly dry riverbeds, people have put in regularly spaced waterholes. This means that wildlife that used to have to migrate to find water now stays put all year round. It also means that there is lots of water for small birds to come down and drink. This makes things interesting for us, because with the small birds drinking come the falcons and goshawks looking to make a meal of the small birds. Rob had spent time here with Andrew Jenkins, falcon expert, and they found that the different small bird species such as Turtle Doves, Namaqua Doves, Sandgrouse and Red-headed Sparrows come down at different times of day, creating peaks of activity. The raptors have obviously figured out these peaks as they descend when the waterholes are at their busiest.

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A female Lanner Falcon tucks into her meal while the smaller male sits by, hoping for his share

So we spent much of our days in the Kalahari driving from one waterhole to the next in time for each peak. Rob and I waved our cameras around, trying desperately to get photos of a falcon catching a dove. But it happens so fast!