What’s for dinner: fish, snake, or chicken?

We saw quite a few birds of prey on our tours of Southern Africa, but witnessed very few of their attempts at predation.

African fish eagle

Fish eagles, like their North American  cousins, the Bald eagle, are patient sit and wait hunters of open water near streams, marshes, and lakes.  We saw lots of them sitting on a high perch, but none of them actually hunting, or catching anything.  Like ospreys, they have specialized scales on their toes for grasping slippery fish.

Bateleur eagle, Okavango delta

Bateleur eagles are smaller-bodied than fish eagles with very short tails. They hunt primarily birds (pigeons and grouse) in open savanna country. Red face and gray and black wings distinguish them from the other, mostly brown eagles.

Walhlber's Eagle (top) and Tawny Eagle (bottom)

Two species of eagles on the same tree:  Walhlber’s Eagle (top) and Tawny Eagle (bottom).

Tawny eagle

Tawny eagles are quite variable in color (this is a darker form).  Its diet is largely made up of carrion, but it also feeds on a variety of small mammals in dry scrub and savanna areas.

Wahlberg's Eagle

Wahlberg’s eagle doesn’t discriminate in its food choices: reptiles, birds, and mammals make it into its diet. However this bird prefers to hunt the woodland instead of the dry, open steppe, so it is strange to find these two species together here.

Sightings of eagles were common, but smaller hawks were rarely seen in the acacia woodland or the open grasslands.  Instead, that ecological niche of small, mobile bird of prey seems to be taken by Yellow-billed Kites, which we saw frequently and everywhere, as they cruised over land or open water in search of a snack.

Yellow-billed Kite

The tail flares and twists to enable the bird to change direction. They rarely need to flap their wings.

Yellow-billed Kite

They hunt for small fish and invertebrates along the shore, but won’t turn down a nice meal of snake, lizard, bird, or mammal if they find one. Apparently carrion is also acceptable, which makes them true “meativores”.

A pair of secretary birds on their roosting nest

We found a pair of secretary birds on their roosting nest just at sunrise.  This nest is for nocturnal use, not for raising chicks.  These long-legged, terrestrial birds of prey can be confused with cranes, which they resemble, but genetically, they are lumped with the eagles and hawks.  They are diurnal predators of reptiles, insects, and small mammals, which they scare out of the grass by stomping around on the vegetation.

more on the adventures of Secretary Birds tomorrow!

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